What Business Book Publishers Look For in an Author

If you are involved in the business world, you know that things have gotten a lot tougher in recent years. The housing crisis, which persists to this day, along with the great recession that began in late 2008, have conspired against the business book world in a big way. In today’s challenging economy, sans Border’s, it is harder than ever to get a business book published. Many authors, particularly first time authors, ask me this key question: what do publishers look for in a business book author? Here are some answers, not necessarily in the correct order. Publishers look for: 

* Super smart authors with great and original ideas

* Authors that have a great on line presence. This could mean an email list of say, 100,000 names, or a very big following on Twitter, Facebook, and other social media

* Authors with a superb Website and blog with tens of thousands of users

* Authors that give dozens and dozens of speeches per year, or host a similar number of seminars

* Authors whose last book was an unmitigated success (and conversely, publishers avoid failed authors—that is—authors whose last book has failed)

You get the idea. When you get right down to it, publishers look for authors that have the ability to sell thousands of copies of their own book. That’s because the author platform, which is determined by the answers to the aforementioned questions, often means the difference between success and failure for a book project.

Some authors then ask the next logical question: if I am going to do all of the marketing and selling, what do I need a publisher for? That’s a fair question. Publishers actually bring a great deal to the table, but of course, not all publishers are created equal (I will save that thought for another blog posting). But in the meantime, consider this: a good publisher can lend great prestige to a book, helping you to build your brand in a way that would be impossible any other way. A good publisher will also help you to develop and shape your manuscript, and come up with the right package for your book (e.g. title, cover, subtitle, chapter titles, subheads within chapters, etc.). They also do much to market and distribute your book to brick and mortar bookstores as well as online resellers like Amazon. This is true in the U.S. and around the globe. With the most popular business books, they pay for special bookstore placement in airports stores and other national chains (e.g. table placement for your book with Barnes and Noble). They also have publicists on staff that attempt to get as many mentions for your book in the print and other media, as well as book reviews, and when appropriate, radio and television interviews. Lastly, their rights departments attempt to sell your book to as many international publishers as possible, which often means additional streams of income (this is especially true with management and leadership books, as well as books on global topics).

So to sum up: publishers look for authors with great platforms that can sell tons of books. In return, however, publishers bring their considerable resources to bear to maximize your book’s potential. It is fair to say that publishing is a two-way street: however, the traffic on the road has never been more treacherous.

Permit me to add a postscript to this piece: if it occurred to you that I spent little time discussing the quality of the content of your book idea, you are not alone. After writing this posting I was struck by the fact that there was only one mention of the actual book idea. The truth is that many business publishers examine an  author’s platform before closely reviewing the content of the manuscript. I think it is a sad commentary on how the business book industry has evolved. But it is also reality. It doesn’t make me love what I do any less, it just means that I have grown to be a bit more cynical than I would have hoped.

What Business Book Publishing and the Stock Market Have in Common

If you follow the stock market closely enough you know that today’s market is a study in volatility. But that wasn’t always the case. When I bought my first stock in 1974—Gulf Resources at 14 1/4—only about 15 percent of American households were invested in the market, and trading volumes were anemic. Markets were sleepy. That changed a decade later. By the late 1980’s, despite the crash of  ’87, stocks became all the rage. Everyone seemed to get in the market, volumes ballooned, and stock market investing became a global phenomenon. The great bull market, which started in 1982, continued with a vengeance in the 1990s. In fact, the great bull market that commenced in 1982 did not end until the dot com crash of 2001-2002.  So how is the stock market like the business book market? 

The great bull market in business books also started in 1982 with the publication of Peters’ and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence and Ken Blanchard’s The One Minute Manager. From that point on business books became a booming industry, with many of them, including the two aforementioned titles, gracing The New York Times Bestseller List.  However, like the stock market, business books were not new. The father of modern management, Peter Drucker—who I devoted an entire book to in 2009—had been writing a whole genre of business titles since 1946. However, there was a vast difference between Peter Drucker and Tom Peters, co-author of In Search of Excellence.  Peters was considered cool, a by-product of a new era in which CEOs were the new American heroes (think Lee Iacocca and Jack Welch). Business books, like stocks, were no longer considered to be something for only a slim slice of the population. Business books were now considered hip, and they seemed to be everywhere. They even became fodder for cocktail party conversation.   

Fast forward to today: in 2012, volatility in the stock market—as measured by something called the VIX index—has become the norm. The financial markets are characterized by turbulence. The same is true for business book publishing. The demise of bookstore chain Border’s has been a great loss for the publishing industry. There are now fewer places to “place” books, which has had a chilling effect on the book business (in all genres, not just business books). In addition, the proliferation of free information on the Internet and the fragile state of the U.S. economy has made business book publishing a very tumultuous industry. Layoffs have become the norm in book publishing (and on Wall Street). Perhaps the greatest comparison between the two industries is its unpredictability. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Who could have known that Border’s would fold and Amazon would emerge as a major book publisher? Who could have known that eBooks would become such a major force in the industry after starting out in the 1990s as a major flop?  The stock market and the business book market have one more important link: they tend to move together. Business book sales rise when the stock market goes up. It’s a case of rising tides lifting all boats.   

I could go on, but you get the idea. One thing is for sure: both turbulent industries will bring us plenty of surprises in the months and years ahead.

Literary Agents Level the Playing Field

As many of you know, I have had the good fortune to be in the publishing world for almost exactly 30 years. And not only in the publishing world, but in the business book part of the publishing world. For 27 of those 30 years I have worked with such great publishing houses as McGraw-Hill, Dow Jones-Irwin, and Portfolio/Penguin. And wrote or published works on such business luminaries as Jack Welch, Lou Gerstner, Ross Perot, George Soros and Warren Buffett, to name a few. That is, until 2009 when I decided that I would become my own boss and create a unique business: a literary agency that offers agenting services as well as writing and editing services. I figured that two factors would set my business apart from the typical literary agency:

1.  All I do is business books, making me a true specialist of the industry; and

2. I offer all sorts of writing and editing services, helping authors develop whatever they need to distinguish themselves and their work(s) in the marketplace.

Oh, one more thing: I also specialize in working with first time authors. I have a respect and love for the business book world which is why I enjoy educating those special group of budding authors about to tackle their first book project.

I often get the question, “do I really need a business book agent?” And my answer is always the same. You may not need one, but you definitely want one. Why do you want a business book agent? There are several key reasons:

1. An agent with a sterling reputation can help bestow a whole other layer of credibility to your project.  Some of the best publishers won’t even look at a business book proposal unless it comes from a reputable agent. By hooking up with the right agent, your book takes on added and not insignificant authority.  

2. A literary agent can help ensure that you are putting together the right materials that publishers require in order to make a positive publishing decision. This includes the business book proposal, which is a specialty of my firm;

3. An agent, especially one that does nothing but business books, has all the key contacts in the industry to ensure that your work will end up in the hands of the right editors and publishers. I have hired or worked with as many as half of the key business book editors in the field at one time or another;

4. An agent will get you a better deal than you can get for yourself. This one may be the most obvious. An agent knows what to look for and ask for—things that you might not even think of. Negotiating is not only a strength of mine it is an absolute passion. You might find this hard to believe, but there is nothing in life that I don’t negotiate. Hell, I even negotiate the number of toys for my sons’ Happy Meals at McDonalds! 

5.  A good agent sees the big picture. In recent months I have worked with authors who have the potential to write several books. I advise them on which book comes first, and helps them to map out a five-year strategy for their entire writing career. Put another way, I see beyond the dollar signs of a single book and instead see the forest through the trees. My entire future is dependent on authors who can write multiple books that succeed against long odds.

There is much more that I can offer an author but I will leave that to a future blog posting. If you think you may need my services then email me at jkliterary@comcast.net or call me directly at (630) 323-5499. Feel free to contact me 7 days a week as I seldom take time off.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.

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